Monday, December 11, 2006
Whose War Crimes?
Evidence from Lebanon about how terrorists use civilians. Monday, December 11, 2006 12:01 a.m. Wall Street Journal A few scenes from modern warfare: Mohammad Abd al-Hamid Srour moved missiles across southern Lebanon under cover of a white flag. Hussein Ali Mahmoud Suleiman used the porch of a private home to fire rockets. Maher Hassan Mahmoud Kourani dressed in civilian clothes, hid his Kalashnikov in a tote bag and stored anti-aircraft missiles in the back of a green unmarked Volvo. The three men, all members of Hezbollah, were captured by Israel during last summer's war.Now their videotaped interviews form part of a remarkable report by retired Lieutenant Colonel Reuven Erlich of Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. Relying heavily on captured Hezbollah documents, onsite and aerial photography and other first-hand evidence, the report shows how the Shiite group put innocent civilians at risk by deliberately deploying its forces in cities, towns and often private homes. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, has accused Israel's military of "indiscriminate warfare" and "a disturbing disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians." Mr. Erlich demolishes that claim, and in the process shows the asymmetric strategy of Islamist radicals. The most persuasive evidence here is photographic, so we urge readers to access the report itself on the Web site of the American Jewish Congress (ajcongress.org). Hezbollah's headquarters in Aita al-Shaab, for instance, sits in the heart of the village. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's office and home are in a densely built neighborhood of Beirut. In the town of Qana--site of an Israeli bombing on July 30 that killed 28 and that Hezbollah's apologists were quick to label a "massacre"--an arms warehouse can be seen adjacent to a mosque. There are photographs of rockets in the back seats of cars, missile launchers adjacent to farm houses, storage bunkers hidden beneath homes. There is also a trove of before-and-after photography demonstrating the precision of most Israeli bombing.The report also shows how the use of civilian cover was explicitly part of Hezbollah's strategy. "[The organization's operatives] live in their houses, in their schools, in their churches, in their fields, in their farms and in their factories," said Mr. Nasrallah in a TV interview on May 27, several weeks before the war. "You can't destroy them in the same way you would destroy an army." Exactly what Mr. Nasrallah means is illustrated in the testimonials of the captured fighters. Asked why Hezbollah would risk the destruction of civilian areas by firing from them, Mr. Suleiman replied that while in theory private homes belonged to "the residents of the village . . . in essence they belong to Hezbollah."Perhaps that's true; if so, then Human Rights Watch has no grounds to accuse Israel of atrocities when Mr. Nasrallah has effectively declared everyone and everything in southern Lebanon to be his fief. Our sense, however, is that not all southern Lebanese were delighted to have their livelihoods appropriated for Hezbollah's political purposes, even if they were too intimidated to register a protest. Either way, it is Hezbollah, not Israel, that is guilty of war crimes here.Beyond the war in Lebanon, these images suggest how Islamists seek to use the restraint of Western powers against them. They shoot at our civilians from the safety of their own civilian enclaves that they know we are reluctant to attack. Then if by chance their civilians are killed, they call in CNN and al-Jazeera cameras and wait for the likes of Mr. Roth to denounce America or Israel for war crimes. None of this means the U.S. shouldn't continue to fight with discrimination and avoid civilian casualties. But it means our political leadership needs to speak as candidly as Israelis now are speaking about this enemy strategy, so the American people can understand and be steeled against this new civilian battleground.